Tuesday 3 May 2011

Zooey wins! - and, explaining Seymour's suicide


I have just re-read (for the first time since I became a Christian) JD Salinger's three most religious stories: Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters, Zooey, and Seymour: an introduction.

I enjoyed them all, but most appreciated Zooey.

RHTRC struck me as a perfect short story, but - in terms of Salinger's ouvre - transitional; Zooey is IT, a perfect short story that is uniquely and 100 percent Salinger; and Seymour crosses the line from short story into a kind of fictional essay.


As well as its brilliant character delineation, dialogue, density and description; I was fascinated by the religious aspect of Zooey - and the light it shone on the big unifying question of the Glass chronicles: why did Seymour commit suicide?


Zooey begins with Salinger's characteristic eclectic, syncretic 'perennial philosophy' New-Age-ish -type spirituality; and builds towards Salinger's most wholly-Christian epiphany - the famous Fat Lady parable at the end.

This trajectory is one which is - apparently - undergone by Franny, Zooey and Buddy; but not by Seymour.


Seymour's suicide was - I believe - caused by what Walker Percy termed the 're-entry problem.

(see WP's Lost in the Cosmos and my earlier blog posting http://charltonteaching.blogspot.com/2011/03/re-entry-problem-for-artists-and.html )

This is intrinsic to any worldly spirituality - perhaps to any non-Christian religion - which does not include a heavenly afterlife with a process of theosis - or movement of the human towards becoming a Son of God.

Seymour seems to have had only a vague kind of transcendental belief (he does not quite seem to believe that Truth, Beauty and Virtue are objective, real - and to the extent he does he regards them as immanent - within nature - rather than supernatural).

Indeed, Seymour's spirituality is characterized by a belief in reincarnation rather than afterlife.


Yet reincarnation (even if true) is no answer to anything - or rather it is merely a superficial answer to specific questions (such as explaining a person's character and behaviour) not ultimate questions.

Reincarnation merely pushes the problems of life backward or forward, without providing any understanding of the human relation to The Good, to reality, to meaning or purpose.


Seymour argues (I think) that this worldly life here on earth is perfect - if only we looked at it correctly.

The fault is with people and their perspective.

But Seymour apparently couldn't get the right perspective and keep it. He could get himself into the correct frame of mind for periods, but would at some point have to re-enter the perspective which saw the world as mundane, painful, full of ugliness, lies, cruelty, short-termist selfishness.

And it was this re-entry which he found unbearable; and which (it seems to me) led to his suicide.


Seymour simply could not live up to his own ideals, his own aspirations - could not maintain his own temporary achievements.

And, lacking a conception of Original Sin, and lacking a belief in the possibility of Christian salvation - he had nowhere to go, nothing to turn to but (as he imagined) extinction and (he hoped) an end to his own suffering.



HenryOrientJnr said...

I read these stories recently and enjoyed them all except Seymour. I found the narrator to be intrusive and annoying. Any idea why Salinger wrote it this way - except perhaps to suggest the dissonance in Seymour's character compared to the others (though Buddy is the narrator).

Bruce Charlton said...

I know exactly what you mean, but I predict that at some point - in a year or two - you will go back and re-read Seymour, and like it more.

As to 'why' - I don't think that sort of question can really be answered (at least not for a serious writer like JDS) - but to understand him and how he wrote these stories I recommend the recent biography JD Salinger: A Life Raised High by Kenneth Slawenski.